Tunisian Salafi leader says Islamic-led government is a U.S. puppet

Tunis Tue Oct 23, 2012 9:58am EDT

Protesters shout slogans calling for the release of protesters who were arrested after clashes with police last month outside a court in the central city of Sidi Bouzid October 22, 2012. REUTERS/Mohamed Amine ben Aziza

Protesters shout slogans calling for the release of protesters who were arrested after clashes with police last month outside a court in the central city of Sidi Bouzid October 22, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Mohamed Amine ben Aziza

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Tunis (Reuters) - The leader of radical Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia on Tuesday accused the country's government of being a puppet of the United States and un-Islamic, urging it to release Salafists jailed after an attack on the U.S. embassy last month.

The criticism from Saif-Allah Benahssine, who is also known as Abu Iyadh, came as Tunisia's moderate Islamist-led government celebrated its first anniversary following the ousting of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali last year.

Benahssine is wanted by the police for allegedly inciting the attack on the U.S. embassy in which four people were killed in a protest over an anti-Islamic film made in California. Benhassine escaped capture at a mosque in Tunis last month.

Tunisia is the only one of four countries that have been convulsed by a so-called "Arab Spring" uprising where the transition to a new government has passed off relatively peacefully. But the country's new rulers remain under pressure from radical Islamists like Benahssine who want more change.

The Islamic Ennahda Movement won the country's first free elections last October following Tunisia's revolution, the first of the "Arab Spring" revolts, and now heads a government that also includes two secular parties.

"This unfair interim government has chosen to fall into the lap of the infidel West, especially the United States and France," said Benahssine, in a video posted on Islamist websites on Tuesday.

"The government claims to belong to Islam but is far from Islam," he said, calling President Moncef Marzouki "a fool" and "a pawn driven by the West".

The authorities arrested 144 people, including two prominent leaders of Ansar al-Sharia, after the embassy attack and Benahssine urged the government to release them.

"You must release our young people, who suffer injustice and oppression, to spend the holiday of Aid this week with their families", he said.

Lawyers say some jailed Salafists have started hunger strikes to protest against their alleged ill-treatment and poor prison conditions.

The United States this month requested Tunisia bring the embassy attackers to trial, pledging to continue its support for the democratic transition in Tunisia.

President Marzouki said last month that the Salafists were a minority, that there were no more than three thousand of them, and that they were "germs". He said the law would be strictly applied strictly against the Salafists.

(Reporting by Tarek Amara; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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